Bouzan Mohmood sat cross-legged in the sun Sunday afternoon, sharing a meal and conversation with a small group of fellow refugees while their children kicked soccer balls and picked flowers from the field at Baileywick Park.
Mohmood, 38, is a Kurdish native from the border town of Kobani, in northern Syria, whose family fled to Turkey before ISIS and civil war hit their town in 2013.
They were refugees for two years before the United Nations offered them a chance to leave for the United States. Mohmood seized the opportunity for a stable job and to seek medical care for his son, 8, who suffers a heart condition, scoliosis and only has one working kidney.
He and his wife, Sarah Muslim, their two young sons and daughter arrived in Raleigh about six months ago. Mohmood, a skilled tailor with 20 years of experience, now earns $8 an hour working for a laundry service. He struggles to support his family and pay for his son’s medical care, he said through an interpreter.
America and its people are nice, Mohmood said, but he needs more work – hopefully, as a tailor – and income. He loves life here and thinks the people are very caring, but if their situation doesn’t improve, the family might have to leave for Canada or return to Turkey, he said.
“I think that the refugee situation in the United States is not very good, because in America, everything is about money, and it’s hard to get a job as a new person here in the United States, because they usually ask you for your experience in the United States, and we usually don’t have experience here,” Mohmood said.
Sunday’s potluck allowed him and other refugees to replace their troubles for a day with community, food and fun.
The event was sponsored by volunteers and staff from the nonprofit U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants to celebrate diversity and welcome refugees from seven mostly Muslim countries included in President Donald Trump’s first travel ban. The second executive order in March removed the ban on travel from Iraq, but it has been stalled by legal challenges.
When our clients were feeling nervous and anxious after ‘Travel Ban 1.0’ was signed, and they saw 1,500 people pour into the airport, holding signs saying ‘Refugees Welcome,’ they knew that somebody’s got their back.
Scott Phillips, field office director for U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
USCRI field office director Scott Phillips said many refugees are afraid of what they are hearing. An outpouring of support counters those fears, he said.
“When our clients were feeling nervous and anxious after ‘Travel Ban 1.0’ was signed, and they saw 1,500 people pour into the airport, holding signs saying ‘Refugees Welcome,’ they knew that somebody’s got their back,” he said.
USCRI helps refugees before they arrive by setting up apartments and arranging for support and medical care. The agency continues to work with refugees for up to five years, Phillips said.
USCRI staff helped 366 refugees from October 2015 to September 2016. More have gotten temporary help, he said.
The State Department’s Refugee Processing Center reports 3,342 refugees arrived in North Carolina in 2015-16. Roughly 27 percent were from the six travel ban nations. The largest group is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo – 28 percent of all refugees – followed by Syrians at 18 percent.
North Carolina is a welcoming community for refugees, Phillips said.
“There are some very loud voices (in North Carolina), but I think that’s a minority of voices,” he said. “I think when people get past thinking about refugees in a dehumanizing way and they think about people that have refugee status, the reasons that people have refugee status, that quickly fades away.”
He said the refugee vetting process is strong. Applicants face enhanced security screening, interviews, medical screening and other steps before even boarding a plane, according to the departments of State and Homeland Security. On average, it takes up to two years for a refugee to be resettled.
“It’s important that these people are given the opportunity to re-establish their lives where their families can live in safety,” Phillips said.
The refugees are thankful for the community they have found, said Abu Zackariya, a longtime U.S. resident who spoke on behalf of the refugees.
“They don’t speak English, so they cannot say thank you, however, when we talk about the United States of America, they are very thankful, they are very appreciative of the kindness that the Americans have shown them, and they are really, really blown away with your kindness,” Zackariya said.